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During his rookie year with the Pirates in 2016, Jameson Taillon took a road trip that included a weekend stop to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
He didn’t start the first game of that series on June 17 — he ended up taking the bump in the series finale on June 19 and took his first loss as a big leaguer — but he got to witness firsthand as Cubs starter Jake Arrieta dominated the Pirates to the tune of 11 strikeouts over six shutout innings in a 6-0 win for the North Siders. And the energy he felt from the 123,995 fans that packed the ballpark that weekend has stuck with him.
“I remember just taking a step back and feeling the environment,” Taillon said Monday during a Zoom call with Chicago media. “There’s nothing better than a day game at Wrigley in the summer. I remember thinking at the time: ‘This is the big leagues right here. This is The Show.'”
That win was the Cubs’ 45th in what would end up being a 103-win campaign that led to the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. The place, as he described it, was “absolutely rocking.” However, it was also much easier to pack Wrigley Field back then when the team was a legitimate contender.
Things are different now. As much as Taillon was impressed with what the ballpark could look like when the team is at its best, 2016 certainly feels like a lifetime ago compared to where the Cubs are today.
Only Kyle Hendricks remains from that championship team, as Willson Contreras signed a five-year contract with the Cardinals and Jason Heyward (after being released from the last year of his contract) signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers. David Ross is still around as the club’s current manager, but the fact is that except for one active player, the roster looks completely different from the ones Taillon used to face at the franchise’s peak.
“Playing there in ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19, there’s no place better when it’s rocking,” Taillon said. “It’s really hard to play there as a visiting player, so I’m excited to hopefully get to experience that firsthand.”
The Cubs’ 39-31 record in the second half of 2022 was an obvious selling point, but they were still a team that finished 74-88 and were essentially out of the playoff race in May. Players such as Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Nico Hoerner and Christopher Morel took significant steps in their own development, but until the last couple of weeks, this team didn’t look any closer to contention than they did this past season.
Now, things have changed. In addition to Taillon’s four-year deal that the Cubs made official Monday morning (which is reportedly worth $68 million), the Cubs have also brought former MVP and center fielder Cody Bellinger, reliever Brad Boxberger and All-Star and reigning National League Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson into the fold.
Taillon reportedly agreed to his deal the same day as Bellinger and well before Swanson did over the weekend, so those signings didn’t have much influence on his own decision. Still, Taillon said the Cubs made it clear they would focus on making significant additions beyond himself, which played a part in him choosing Chicago, too.
“I didn’t know exactly what they had their hands in, but they did say they were looking to spend and improve the team, which is obviously exciting for any team you’re on,” Taillon said. “You always want to see them try to get better. Even regardless of that, I really hit it off with everyone I talked to and heard great things. I thought it was going to be a great fit regardless.”
While Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million deal (the second-largest in franchise history) makes him very much the crown jewel of the Cubs’ free agent haul, all four fill clear areas of need. This most likely won’t be a World Series contending team next season with the current roster, but they do play in the NL Central, outside of the other divisions featuring teams who shelled out massive deals this offseason. That in itself is an advantage for the Cubs, whose rivals haven’t necessarily made big splashes to pull away in the division — and that makes Taillon think they will enter next season with a real shot to compete.
But that’s still the biggest question of them all as the Cubs continue to wade through what’s felt like a pretty pivotal offseason for this rebuild: Does this team, as currently constructed, have what it takes to compete for a division crown next year?
That’s tough to answer only midway through the offseason, but projections do show that there are obvious holes that would make it a challenge.
The corner infield and catcher positions project to provide low value compared to left (Ian Happ), right (Seiya Suzuki), second base (Hoerner), shortstop (Swanson) and even center field (Bellinger and potentially Morel). The Cubs do look to have a solid top three in Taillon, Steele and Marcus Stroman, but they should be in the market for another starter (Drew Smyly, anyone?) and some more bullpen help.
There are clearly good pieces throughout the roster, but not enough that this team jumps out as a surefire division contender. As Dan Szymborski puts it in the ZiPS projections blog post at FanGraphs, “You see a lot of the parts of a 90-win team, but not all of the parts. It’s sort of like a birthday cake that’s been frosted, but lacks any decorations. It’s edible, but it isn’t really exciting quite yet.”
The Cubs are probably still third in the division pecking order behind the Cardinals and the Brewers, though they may have closed at least some of that gap already. With the right additions the rest of the offseason, there’s certainly a scenario where things go the Cubs’ way more so than they did in 2022. And that’s where the potential to be a competitive ballclub comes into play.
Coming from a Yankees squad that won 99 games and took the American League East crown last season, Taillon very much knows what a winning team looks like. And having been just a series away from winning the AL pennant a couple of months ago, Taillon likely wasn’t looking to go back to a full-scale rebuild.
Taillon said he consulted former Cubs/ex-teammates about the organization, including Anthony Rizzo, Scott Effross and Trevor Williams. All the feedback he got was, “‘Dude, if you have the opportunity to play there, you really have to take it,'” which helped him realize how much he liked the fit with Chicago.
And in Taillon’s mind, he’s joining a team on track to quickly get Wrigley Field back to rocking like he remembers.
“I think it’s a solid roster,” Taillon said. “From the Cubs’ point of view, I think it’s a division that if you pour into the right guys and create the right roster, the division should be — I don’t want to say up for grabs. We have to go out there and prove it, but it’s a division that’s gettable. I’m happy that they’re adding to [the roster], and I think it’s a group that can make some noise.”
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